I have been awaiting the Ombudsman’s Report into policies, practices and procedures for the removal of new-born pēpi by Oranga Tamariki with great anticipation. Earlier reports have provided us with sobering insights into the experiences of parents and whānau in their dealings with the state child protection system.
In my experience former Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier is an exceptionally competent individual with a comprehensive grasp of the big and small picture of relevant law and practice. The report is even-handed and constructive. It recognises pockets of exemplary work, but it is crystal clear that Oranga Tamariki has comprehensively failed to meet the required practice standards in terms of ‘fairness or the law’. This conclusion is damning, and the evidence is compelling.
This review by the Office of the Commissioner for Children was prompted by an alarming escalation in the removal of Māori infants from parental care by the state. The report sets out to address the following question: “what needs to change to enable pēpi Māori (0-3 months) to remain in the care of their whānau in situations where Oranga Tamariki-Ministry for Children is notified of care and protection concerns?” It is introduced as the first part of a two-part reporting process: we are told that the forthcoming second part of the report will offer practical recommendations for change.
This document is the third in a series of related inquiries prompted by ongoing concerns over the persistence of institutional racism in statutory child protection. The spark was provided by the now notorious Hawkes Bay uplift debacle. We also await the findings of an investigation from the Ombudsman (Peter Boshier) and the outcome of a Waitangi Tribunal inquiry. The burning issue of state social work responses to Māori is also central to the ongoing Royal Commission of Inquiry into historical abuse in state and faith-based care. In the following post I will offer some thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses of this report.
Child protection social work involves risk. It always will. The right decisions cannot always be made and sometimes it can be a question of choosing between the least damaging alternatives.
We have had a long list of child abuse tragedies for over thirty years now – in Aotearoa New Zealand and in comparable jurisdictions – and we have had an almost continuous process of crisis-driven review and reform. Child abuse – under or over intervention – is emotive at a very primal level and it is an enticing political football (Warner, 2015).
To varying degrees reforms are always politically motivated and they are then operationalised by management systems obsessed with targets and performance. As far as quality practice is concerned it is a bit like putting the fox in charge of the chook house.
I have read the report of the Māori Inquiry into Oranga Tamariki (Ko Te Wā Whakawhiti) with great interest, not least because of the mana carried by the members of the governance group. It is a bold Report. Much of the message is not new but the urgency and energy of the wero is palpable: ‘The inquiry did not have the luxury of time, but neither do our whānau’ (Foreword, p.6).
It is timely to engage openly with some of the tensions at the heart of the social work child protection project. Everyone will tell you child protection is a complex field, but this begs a related question – who defines this complexity: complex in what ways and according to who?
I think it is important to recognise that questions can be posed from differing perspectives and pitched at differing levels of analysis. However, the task in front of us is to bring insights together and to begin to weave a new way forward. I will argue here that the messages present in Puao te Ata Tu remain clear and compelling. These messages point to the need to critically re-examine the concept of self-determination for Māori as it relates to the question of child protection.
This one is about the politics of dispossession, poverty and incarceration in neoliberal New Zealand. It is no secret that Māori, Pasifika and working-class families generally carry a disproportionate burden of social suffering in our society. Look around you if you don’t believe me. We need to dismantle the structures that perpetuate social inequality.
This one is for the lawyers. Child protection and the appropriate legal framework to facilitate ‘best practice’ is a subject which has been vigorously contested across Anglophone societies over the last forty years. These debates reflect differing disciplinary perspectives and differing ideological influences such as the tension between the discourse of individual children’s rights on the one hand and claims to collective cultural autonomy for whānau Māori on the other. Much of this friction is generated by, and reflected in, the economic and political changes that have developed since the 1970s, when the so-called ‘Welfare State consensus’ started to unravel. Parton (2014) argues that changes to child protection practice over time are best understood as responses to changing (and contested) constructions of the preferred relationship between the state, the family and children; and more specifically the children of the poor.
Lesley Max’s book ‘Children: An endangered species’ in 1990 opened the eyes of many in Aotearoa NZ to the horror of child abuse. And in a recent story on Newsroom Max expressed her feelings about how little has changed. In this post I’m not saying that we can’t do so much better because we have to! Social workers must apologise when we do wrong and take responsibility for poor practice in our name and work to fix the systems that hamper good work. We have to stand up for a human rights-based social work against the orders of risk averse managers. As a social work educator and researcher I want our students and graduates to go into systems that support the best practice. We can’t let overwork and scarce resources become an excuse for not treating whānau with respect and kindness. We have to fight for much better support for families. We have to ensure that practice is principled, honest and can stand the spotlight. It is time for child protection in Aotearoa to be more transparent, see for example the UK based Transparency Project.
Like many of us recently, I have watched the ‘baby uplift’ footage story featured in Newsroom and read some of the avalanche of concerned and outraged commentary that has followed. I found the story disturbing on many levels – extremely disturbing but, sadly, not surprising. I think that the practice on display and the media responses from the Oranga Tamariki hierarchy illustrate deep-seated systemic problems within the state child protection system in Aotearoa New Zealand.